Do Americans spend too much on luxuries? Nope.

Why are we so ready to believe in the myth of overconsumption?

by Amelia Warren Tyagi and Elizabeth Warren, Slate

During the past generation, a great myth has swept through America. Like all good myths, the Overconsumption Myth tells a tale to explain a confusing world. Why are so many Americans in financial trouble? Why are credit card debts up and savings down? Why are millions of mothers heading into the labor force and working overtime? The myth is so deeply embedded in our collective understanding that it resists even elementary questioning: Families have spent too much money buying things they don’t need. Americans have a new character flaw—“the urge to splurge”—and it is driving them to spend, spend, spend like never before.

The drive for all that spending is almost mystical in origin. John de Graaf and his co-authors explain in Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, “It’s as if we Americans, despite our intentions, suffer from some kind of Willpower Deficiency Syndrome, a breakdown in affluenza immunity.” Economist Juliet Schor blames “the new consumerism,” but the results are the same. She points to “mass ‘over-spending’ within the middle class [in which] large numbers of Americans spend more than they say they would like to, and more than they have. That they spend more than they realize they are spending, and more than is fiscally prudent.”

Many maladies are explained away by the Overconsumption Myth. Why are Americans in debt? Sociologist Robert Frank claims that America’s newfound “Luxury Fever” forces middle-class families “to finance their consumption increases largely by reduced savings and increased debt.” Why are schools failing and streets unsafe? Juliet Schor cites “competitive spending” as a major contributor to “the deterioration of public goods” such as “education, social services, public safety, recreation, and culture.” Why are Americans unhappy? Affluenza sums it up: “The dogged pursuit for more” accounts for Americans’ “overload, debt, anxiety, and waste.” Everywhere we turn, it seems that overconsumption is tearing at the very fabric of society.

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